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The Legacy of Lydia Villa-Komaroff Hispanic Scientist, Educator and Leader

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Abandoning the Hispanic Stereotype

Recent reports show that some Hispanics in America tend to take higher education for granted. Eager to work and provide for their families, they no longer aim for a college degree. Thus, Hispanics have been associated with "blue collar" jobs. But if they would learn about the accomplishments of their fellow Hispanics in the academe, then maybe they would turn away from these stereotypes.

Many Hispanics have made scientific research and engineering their lifes work, proving that excellence in science and technology need not be confined to any particular racial group. Lydia Villa-Komaroff, who earned her PhD in cell biology from MIT, has made astounding discoveries in developmental biology, genetics, cloning and other related fields. Her success should inspire other Hispanics to have a different perspective about education.

Tracing her Hispanic roots

Her family legend tells of a man named Encarnacion Villa, who was taken prisoner by revolutionaries during the Mexican War. Fortunately, their leader, Pancho Villa, released Encarnacion, telling him to "have many sons with that name." Encarnacion did not disappoint Pancho. Generations passed, and his granddaughter, Lydia Villa, was born on August 7, 1947, the eldest of six children.

She attributes her interest in education to her family. Her father gave her encyclopedias, telling her that these books can provide everything she needs to know. Her parents motivated her and her siblings to pursue the careers that they want.

She realized her ambition to become a scientist when she was nine. Since then, her journey in science began and she never looked back. Lydia Villa-Komaroff is very grateful that her family was very supportive, since it was uncharacteristic of Hispanic parents to allow their children to decide on their education.

She explained that, "In the southwestern Chicano culture that I came from, many parents, consciously or unconsciously, discourage children from pursuing higher education because they are afraid that education will change their children or that the children will be lost to them." 1

The Making of a Scientist, Educator, and Leader

Villa-Komarrof knew that she would be crossing boundaries if she pursued a career in science. She said that "Traditionally, Hispanic women are not socialized to believe they can earn a living, much less be scientists." Obviously, she couldn't care less about their tradition. She cared about her education and her future.

During high school, she attended the National Science Foundation Summer Science Training Program at Texas College. Aiming to study biology, she went to the University of Washington in 1965. Later, she transferred to Goucher College in Townson, Maryland, where she earned her degree in biology, graduating with honors. In 1970, she pursued graduate studies with the Department of Biology at MIT, and in 1975, achieved her PhD in cell biology. In her dissertation, she made a study about the polio virus.

After finishing her education, she did not hesitate to apply and practice what she had been taught after years of training. She joined other experts in molecular biology in their pursuit to know more about the composition of the human body: cells, genes, and DNA. She became a part of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Molecular Biology of the University of Massachusetts, where she also taught.

In 1984, she transferred to the Department of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. In 1996, she became a professor of neurology at the Northwestern University. Throughout her career, she has led notable university organizations in science and research. She administered studies on the first human brain transplant with the National Institutes of Health, and was a member of different science-oriented groups sponsored by the government.

She was a founding member of "SACNAS" or the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. She also served as the vice president of the group. Her experience offers lessons for minorities, especially Hispanics, that there are many countless opportunities for them in science. 2

Villa-Komaroff's insulin

Her most memorable discovery came in 1978. She demonstrated how bacterial cells could be used to generate insulin (a hormone critical in food absorption). Her work was a major scientific innovation in DNA technology and protein synthesis, and she was awarded with two patents. 3

Recognition as one of the 50 most powerful Hispanics

Currently, she is the vice president and chief operating officer of the WhiteHead Institute for biomedical research. Hispanic Engineer and Information Technology Magazine selected her as one of the country's most powerful Hispanics, because of her contributions to the advancement of molecular biology, and leadership experiences with scientific and technological institutions.

Most of all, she played her part in encouraging the Hispanic community to participate in the global technology trends. Lydia Villa-Komaroff has eclipsed all doubts against a Hispanic woman's place in the technical field.

She wants her fellow Hispanics to go forth and help enrich the science and engineering workforce.


References
1. Hispanic Heritage - Biographies - Lydia Villa-Komaroff. http://www.galegroup.com/free_resources/chh/bio/villa_l.htm
2. Lydia Villa-Komaroff, PhD. http://www.witi.com/center/witimuseum/womeninsciencet/1996/060696.shtml
3. Hispanic American Innovators Advance Technology. http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/com/speeches/02-62.htm
4. White-Head Institute: Lydia Villa-Komaroff. http://www.wi.mit.edu/nap/features/nap_feature_lvk_50.html



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